MIT proposes new role of “Learning Engineer”

The recent MIT Online Education Policy Initiative report lays out the case for a new type of education staff member. In order to build personalised blended learning experiences for students, the report argues the need for “learning engineers” — people with terminal degrees in traditional academic disciplines who also have experience with design and interdisciplinary collaboration and an appetite for bleeding-edge technology.

For MIT, a Learning Engineer:

  • “…. is a creative professional who helps build bridges between fields of education and develops additional infrastructure to help teachers teach and students learn”.
  • “….must integrate their knowledge of a discipline with broad understanding of advanced principles from across the fields of education”.
  • “…must be familiar with state-of-the-art educational technologies, from commercial software to open-source tools, and skilled in the effective use of new online tools.”
  • “…must be able to work with educators, both to create new learning experiences from scratch and to integrate new technologies and approaches into existing experiences, whether online or in-person or both.”

A recent Inside Higher Ed article adds:

Add to this list knowledge of issues related to intellectual property rights and accessibility, high levels of emotional and social intelligence to collaborate with faculty and work directly with students, and fluency in assessment practices and design thinking. Learning engineers, in the MIT model, are generalists in learning theory and technology competence – but also specialists in a given science or humanities discipline.

Setting out to create a new ‘domain’ of blended learning materials is a considerable financial, creative and engineering task. Do it across multiple-departments, and it is obviously an institution-level problem, and a culture-changing one too.

Having built over 20 such domains, mostly for online distance learning business programmes, I think the term ‘learning engineer’ is apt. Why? Because a suite of 40 Masters-level modules, each with an average of 5+ course components such as: study guides; assessments; textbooks; case studies etc. quickly becomes a domain of 200+ individual course components to manage and maintain.

By the time you generate each of those components in the delivery formats needed for print, screen, tablet, module and packaged LMS system, you have say 4 * 200 = 800 individual course components to handle/manage in your domain. Translate them into another language and that doubles it to 1600… It’s obviously an engineering task to manage learning materials at this level, and a very strategic one.

In short, there is a place for this new job title of ‘Learning Engineer’, and MIT have clearly seen the reason for it. It includes content development, and an information/domain management role as well as familiarity with standards, semantic mark-up, schema development and ideally single-source publishing. It is not instructional design, and it is not a role that instructional designers or academics themselves should probably do.

It’s also not a role for the LMS team either, though LMS systems providers are desperate to claim it to ensure further lock-in. There is a role for an independent team of learning engineers within the institution, who are focused on developing and cherishing these new institutional assets and securing the investment made in creating them for the long-term.

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